Jeffrey Dunn, 2014 Regional Teacher of the Year
I've been thinking a good bit about closing the achievement gap in our home state of Washington. My habit of mind is not to start with test scores, demographic data, and curriculum cross-walks, although I often think in these ways. Instead, I am most comfortable with beginning with an individual student's face.
Toward this end, I recall a young woman who caught everyone's attention. Her long, dark hair was striking in the way that a horse's mane is striking. Her walk down the hall of Deer Park High School was purposeful, not in a look-it's-me sort of way, but in a I-know-what-I'm-about sort of way. Her parents had given her the sort of cheekbones that grace fashion models. On first impression for someone like me, she was a stereotype: a native-American, tribal Indian, first nations' exemplar.
And herein lies the problem: although educational policy is about implementing generalities, educational progress happens one student at a time. Rose (a pseudonym chosen to personalize the narrative but to protect the identity) had never been on a reservation. She lived with her mother, who had Canadian tribal affiliations, and her stepfather, who was of European descent. Her bio-dad was also of European descent, worked in the medical profession, and lived close enough for day visits.
Rose and I first became acquainted because she was a junior struggling to pass English, social studies, and math classes. My job (as coordinator for our Secondary Learning Assistance Program Coordinator and our 21st Century Community Learning Center) was to help Rose graduate. As we talked about her future, it became abundantly clear that a lecture about study skills, grit, and priorities would be counterproductive. There was no doubt that Rose had heard these lectures before, and she was savvy enough to nod, smile, and walk away.
Instead we talked about her goals. What she shared with me was a desperate desire to explore her Indian (Rose's word) identity. Yes, she wanted to graduate, and summer school and regular school day credit retrieval were part of the plan, but somehow these learning activities needed to be more than exercises in academic accounting and tolerance. For Rose, school needed to become meaningful.
Luckily for Rose and me, Deer Park High School's credit retrieval programs were project-based. We were able to arrange visits to Spokane Tribal College for social events and to Wellpinit High School for learning to weave tule mats. She earned English and social studies credits by reading about Wounded Knee, Leonard Peltier, and Russell Means. She kept a journal reflecting on all of her experiences and created her own mythology of a hero horse. She completed her geometry credit by doing a geometric study of family property near Loon Lake. When the time came, I was honored to celebrate with Rose at her graduation.
If this were the end, someone like me could be satisfied with a story that begins with pluralism but ultimately ends with assimilation. After all, whose standards did Rose meet, anyway? But this isn't where Rose's story ends, which I think is why we continue to struggle with closing the achievement gap.
After graduation, Rose had to answer an essential question: what next? She and I talked at length about this. We talked about what it would mean to stay in the Deer Park community. We talked about the adults in her life. We projected where she was right now with where she could expect to be in twenty years. She didn't like her conclusions.
Rose decided instead to return to her maternal grandparents in Canada. Yes, she knew she needed to find a job, and she knew that she might someday need further education. More importantly she knew that she needed to find a healthy community. She recognized that the adults around her were too broken. The pain was too often dulled by alcohol. Rose knew that she somehow had to repair this disconnectedness, not replicate it. Her intuition was that going to her maternal grandparents would lead to finding herself in others.
Clearly using Rose's story to think about closing the achievement gap has diverged from the story of test scores, demographic data, and curriculum cross-walks. In fact, they really have little to do with one another, which is exactly what Rose in her own way explained to me during our first meetings. "I don't do well in school because I don't see the point."
The goal Rose and I worked on from that moment forward was to ignore what was axiomatic about schools. We ignored the school's physical boundaries, the class schedule boundaries, the seat time expectations, the established curriculum, and the accounting structure (the accumulation of points averaged into grades). We went so far as to read about Russell Means and the American Indian Movement's occupation of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark. Our goal was for Rose to connect with meaningful experiences. Ultimately that led to her leaving one community and moving to another.
I would liken the way Rose and I went about attacking the problem of education to the way the late Urie Bronfenbrenner (Professor Emeritus of Human Development and Psychology at Cornell University and co-founder of Head Start) attacked the problem of education. To this end he created the "ecology of human development" as a way to see the necessary connectedness of the child, parent/community, and teacher/school. He observed that too often "teachers undermine parental values, parents undercut teachers, and peer values sabotage those elders" (Brentro 164). Bronfenbrenner focuses very little on test scores, standards, and curriculum. Instead he focuses on repairing the sort of broken community in which Rose felt adrift. Bronfenbrenner and his ecology of human development lead someone like me to work to develop student-parent-school relationships as the most effective way to close the achievement gap.
But as helpful as Bronfenbrenner's ecology of human development can be, one can end up again confusing the forest for the trees. What Rose and so many other students teach someone like me is that by focusing on them as individuals instead of on test scores, demographic data, and curriculum (or even right-headed psychology), we can begin to close the achievement gap. From the student's perspective the question is always, whose achievement gap is it anyway? Am I learning to make professional educators' numbers look better, or am I learning to create a meaningful life for myself? For someone like me, I stand with one tree at a time.
Brendtro, Larry K. "The Vision of Urie Bronfenbrenner: Adults Who are Crazy about Kids." Reclaiming Children and Youth, vol. 15, no. 3, 2006., pp. 162-166.
Jeffrey Dunn is a 2014 Regional Teacher of the Year. He is a building-based instructional specialist working with 6 - 12 grade students at Deer Park Middle and High School in Deer Park, Washington.
Amy Abrams, Kent